Amy Freed’s campy romp
You, Nero, now at Arena Stage’s Fichandler Theatre, is a polished, colorful, and often-funny look at ancient Rome leading up to the fabled night of fire and fiddling. But the laughs come from one-dimensional shtick. Freed’s stated attempt to explore the effect politics and art have on each other never really penetrates below the surface of mugging, pop-culture shout-outs, and one-liners.
Freed created the role of a prancing, child-like Nero expressly for Danny Scheie, who originated the role some years back at Berkeley Repertory Theater. He plays the louche leader as narcissist-in-chief. Sure, he’s a murderous tyrant with serious mother issues, but who cares when he’s just so faaabulous?
Surrounding Scheie is Jeff McCarthy as Scribonius, a low-rent playwright attempting to use theater to convince Nero into abandoning his evil ways and maybe save the crumbling empire; Susannah Schulman as Poppaea, Nero’s devious, omni-sexual consort; Kasey Mahaffy as Fabiolo, a male Poppaea-look-alike who catches Nero’s eye and loses something valuable (a couple of things, actually) in the process; and Nancy Robinette who gives a tour-de-force performance as Nero’s murderous, always-scheming mom, Agrippina.
Director Nicholas Martin makes good use of the Fichhandler’s in-the-round space, creating a constant swirl of movement. Round and round they go, the motion generating enough energy to propel this slight vehicle forward. If a line goes flat, another one will pop up in just a few seconds.
Gabriel Berry’s costumes are vibrantly hued and amusing, the eye candy holding our attention on the mostly barren stage. (Set designer James Noone extensively uses the large central elevator to rapidly give us center stage props.)
Martin’s actors utilize outsized, stereotypical movements and sometimes turn around to repeat facial reactions to make sure we all get the joke. The emphasis on speed and laughs renders Freed’s serious, even chilling, themes irrelevant. Scheie gets lots of laughs mincing about, but the horror underlying his reign is but a vague nuance. The only time we feel it is when Nero’s unpredictable responses occasionally set Scribonius on edge, and he scrambles to maintain the emperor’s good grace.
McCarthy’s performance mixes the energy of a farce with the occasional reserve of a character with a point to make. Scribonius thinks he can harness the power of theater to transform Nero, who commissions the writer to improve his image. By crafting a hagiographic play showing a noble leader, Scribonius hopes he’ll inspire the tyrant to reform, and life will imitate art.
By reminding us of such contemporary pop-culture icons as American Idol and the use of theater-based jokes (one of Scribonius’ hit plays is titled Death of a Sailmaker and even A Chorus Line is referenced), Freed tries to tie current culture and politics to an empire on the eve of its conflagration. But her attempt at topical commentary is mostly lost within her confection of a play.